Category Archives: Strength and Conditioning

Ask Al: How Do YOU Train?

Other than how to do a muscle-up and what the “trick” is to doing the human flag, the most common question I get asked is what I do in my own workouts.

I first addressed the question last year, but things have changed since then. A lot of my training had been dedicated to preparing for the NYC Triathlon, but since finishing the race, I’ve shifted my primary focus back to strength-based calisthenics. I still do some yoga moves to warm-up, but I am no longer using any weights in my workouts (though I do barbell, dumbbell and kettlebell work with some of my clients). Weight training is a great way to build strength, but for now my interest lies solely in bodyweight training.

I’m Working Out!
Lately I’ve been enjoying longer workouts with more rest between sets and less structure than ever. I can easily spend two hours on a summer day at Tompkins Square Park just practicing various moves with little concern for the specifics of sets, reps, rest times, etc. And wouldn’t you know it – my skills have been improving!

The main things I’m currently focused on are hand-balancing (including elbow levers), finger strength, and lever holds on the bar. As I discussed in my recent post on why I don’t do cardio, these days I’m all about treating my workouts more as skill practice than anything else. I’m avoiding structured “sets and reps” workouts and staying away from training to failure (not that there is anything wrong with structured workouts and training to failure – in fact, I’d recommend both of those things for beginners). At this point in my training, however, my focus is on refining my skills and improving my body awareness during my movements, so I’m taking my time with things. I’m not so much concerned with getting stronger, but rather learning to utilize my strength more effectively. I’m still exercising pretty much every day (I take a rest day only on days when I am particularly sore or particularly busy) but I vary the intensity and duration of my training from day to day. Some days I’ll train for a couple of hours, other days I’m in and out in thirty minutes. Listening to my body is still a cornerstone of my philosophy, so when I feel like I’ve had enough, I call it a day. I’m also still doing some running and swimming for active recovery.

Goal Digger
Those of you who know my fitness philosophy are aware that I am not a fan of the goal-centric mentality that dominates the fitness world. Focusing on goals is often a distraction from the process itself. There are skills I’m looking to improve, but the best way to go about it is to take things one day at a time. With that in mind, my training on any given week might look something like this:

Monday: Muscle-ups, pull-ups, back levers, various fingertip holds
Tuesday: Handstands, handstand push-ups, elbow levers, hanging leg raises
Wednesday: Jump rope, pistol squats, back bridges, fingertip holds
Thursday: Low intensity swim
Friday: One arm pull-ups, one arm hangs, front levers
Saturday: Handstands, push-ups, dips, fingertip holds
Sunday: Pistol squats, shrimp squats, back bridges

What I am doing is basically a modified version of the classic bodybuilding style three-day split: mostly pulling exercises on one day, mostly pushing on another, with legs and low back on the third day. Then an active recovery day, then it repeats. This allows me to train daily while still allowing my muscles adequate rest. Isometrics like elbow levers, handstands and fingertip holds can be practiced more frequently, as the hands are very resilient and all of those skills involve balance and coordination as much as strength.

I’ve done a lot of different types of workout regimens over the years and this is by no means a strict protocol. I’m prone to improvise and go with what I feel on any given day. And of course, I still do the human flag on a regular basis, simply because people are always asking to see it, and I like to give the people what they want.

Training For The NYC Triathlon

Like most fitness enthusiasts, I’m always in search of a physical challenge. Pushing myself out of my comfort zone has allowed me to experience a lot of personal growth. Besides, if you only do things that you’re good at, you probably won’t get to do that many different things.

Though I’m known primarily for practicing bodyweight strength training, I’ve also been a recreational runner for several years, having completed multiple races such as the Brooklyn Half Marathon and the NYC Marathon. In fact, I’ve often said that running is the most basic form of bodyweight training in existence. It’s an essential life skill that any fit person should be capable of doing. The same can be said for swimming and cycling. With that in mind, I’ll be participating in my first triathlon this summer. The NYC Triathlon is less than two weeks away and I am ready to rock!

Try to Tri
Triathlon training can be very demanding both time-wise as well as logistically. Arranging to train in three different modalities that all require unique parameters and equipment is overwhelming on it’s own, to say nothing of actually doing the workouts.

Add to that my continued dedication to my strength training during all this and we’re talking about a huge time commitment. Good thing I love working out!

Sink or Swim
Like most triathlon first-timers, the swim was the part I needed to work on most, so I’ve practiced swimming at least three times a week since I got accepted into the race last fall. Nine months ago I could barely swim 100 meters in a pool without a break; in less than two weeks I’m going to attempt to swim almost a mile in the Hudson River.

The rest of the race consists of a 25 mile bike ride, followed by a 6.2 mile run. While neither of those things is too daunting on their own, doing them back-to-back right after the swim is going to be a serious challenge. Though I’ve been running and cycling on and off for years, I’ve recently increased my milage in preparation for this race. My cardiovascular endurance feels solid and my legs are ready to go.

Strength and Conditioning
Of course I’ve also been doing strength work 3-5 times a week. But by treating those workouts strictly as skill practice (low reps, lots of breaks and only working on one or two things at a time), I’ve managed to maintain most of my strength and even improve at a few things like lever holds and hand balancing.

I’ve become a much better swimmer since beginning my triathlon training, and my running and cycling have felt as natural and fluid as ever. If you define physical fitness as being fit to do various physical things, then I am the fittest I’ve ever been. I’m not looking to set any speed records on this race – just finishing will be enough satisfaction. I’ve dedicated my career to calisthenics and bodyweight strength training, the triathlon is something I’m doing just for fun.

Watch the video below to see some highlights from my triathlon training:

If you’re interested in to getting a pair of running sandals like the ones I’m wearing in the video, check out Invisible Shoes.

Super Slow Workout

If you’re looking to maximize your training, what’s the best speed to perform your reps?

This question comes up often in strength training circles. When clients ask about rep tempo, my answer is usually to focus on proper form and not to worry about speed. If you can do fast reps and keep them clean and controlled, then go as quickly as you like. If you start losing form, then slow down.

How Slow Can You Go?

While fast reps can be helpful for building agility and explosive power, slow training can be a nice way to work on form and alignment. In fact, just three or four slow reps can often be as challenging as twenty fast ones. Going slowly also requires extreme focus, adding a meditative quality to the workout.

One who’s mastered an exercise can do reps at whatever speed they feel like. As far as I’m concerned, true mastery is only attained once the move can be performed with control at any tempo.

Not So Fast

While there are some strength coaches who claim that super-slow training is the best way to work out, I would certainly not make that assertion. As I’ve stated before, there is no one best way to do anything. There are lots of effective techniques and it’s good to mix it up.

With that in mind, I set out to challenge myself by practicing some of my favorite calisthenics moves much slower than usual. I started with basics like pull-ups and dips, then got to work on super slow muscle-ups, pistol squats and even dragon flags.

Watch the video below for more:

Natural Movement and Functional Exercise

During a recent workout at Tompkins Square Park, I observed a father and son playing catch. The dad was around my age and the boy looked to be about three years old.

At one point the child missed the ball and the dad went to retrieve it. I watched him bend down with his back rounded, shoulders slumped and knees pitched way over his feet. (What you might call “bad form” on a squat or deadlift.)

A few minutes later, the boy missed the ball again, but this time the father let him retrieve it himself. When the tot picked up the ball, he squatted down from his hips with his chest up tall and lifted it without the slightest bend in his back – or any overt awareness of the movement pattern. It seemed to happen very naturally. He certainly had no idea what he’d just done can be difficult for many personal training clients!

Child’s Play
Lots of the exercises I teach my clients are movement patterns that children instinctively know, yet through years of neglect, the adult body has forgotten. However, with practice the movements usually return, and with them come increased strength, flexibility and of course, functionality.

Kids typically perform squats and deadlifts without anyone having to show them how. Yet when a deconditioned adult tries to perform these movements, they may feel very unnatural. We’ve spent our entire lives sitting in couches, chairs and cars, steering our bodies away from natural movement patterns. We’ve done this to the point where we’ve unlearned instinctive habits like lifting from the legs, and replaced them with lower back pain and hip ailments.

Functional Exercise
The best exercises are those which mimic natural movement patterns, like the aforementioned squat and deadlift, but sometimes functional exercises aren’t natural movement patterns. A pistol squat certainly isn’t something the body “naturally” does, but it’s a fantastic exercise nonetheless. The pistol takes a natural movement pattern and exaggerates it, making it more difficult, thereby causing the body to adapt and improve. That’s what makes it a functional exercise – it has carryover into real life scenarios. The pistol improves balance and makes each leg individually strong, so when you need to use them together, they can be an even stronger team.

Function or Fashion?
While taking a natural movement pattern and adding difficulty to it is a great way to bring a practical element to your workout, sometimes “functional training” gets so far removed from the original source that it misses the point. Standing on one foot on a bosu ball while doing an overhead dumbbell press is probably less functional than just using heavier dumbbells on stable ground.

Don’t fall for a “new exercise” just because it looks complicated or involves high-tech equipment. You don’t need anything fancy to get functionally fit. Real-life scenarios might involve standing on a shaky surface or pressing a heavy object, but they rarely involve both at the same time. A heavy standing overhead press is already a stability exercise – it demands that you use your entire body!

If you want to mix up your pressing routine, a handstand push-up might be a better choice. Admittedly, being upside-down isn’t something that will come up in day to day activity for most of us either, but the HSPU demands a high strength-to-weight ratio as well as stability and full body control. The HSPU also requires you to push yourself away from the ground, rather than pushing a weight away from your body, which will automatically engage your scapular musculature and build rotator cuff stability. You’ll be much less likely to make the mistake of pressing with your neck instead of your shoulders. Like all inversions, another benefit of the HSPU is that it can improve circulation.

Have Fun(ction) With It!
There are many ways to take natural movement patterns and increase their difficulty in a functional context. Adding weight, bringing in a plyometric element or using a stability component are some of the best ways to accomplish this. But remember, you don’t need wobble boards and other such gadgetry. Be weary of any fitness equipment that isn’t a weight or some type of pull-up apparatus. As a general rule, the more equipment that is required to perform a given exercise, the less functional it’s likely to be.

Below are some examples of functional exercises in each of the categories mentioned above:

Natural Movement + Weight
Squat
Deadlift
Clean and Press
Natural Movement + Plyometrics
Jump Lunge
Plyo Pull-up
Clap push-up
Natural Movement + Stability
Pistol Squat
Ring Muscle-up
One Arm Push-up

Final Thoughts
This list is just the tip of the iceberg! The world of functional fitness includes endless variations on these and other exercises. There might be some that are more effective for you than others. Experiment for yourself and let your body be your teacher.

Backyard Pull-up Bar Part III

Last summer my brother Danny and I built a backyard pull-up bar at his home in Brooklyn. The original set-up featured two bars of different heights connected by crossbeams for extra stability.

Recently, Danny had the idea to make an adjustment to the backyard pull-up bar set-up by switching the crossbeams on the right side into parallel beams. This one minor adjustment has opened up a lot of new possibilities for our backyard workouts.

In addition to practicing various types of pull-ups, muscle-ups and levers, we can now work on human flags off the parallel bars as well as using them for assisted one arm pull-ups.

Watch the video below to see some highlights from one of our recent training sessions:

Related Posts:

Building a Backyard Pull-up Bar

Backyard Pull-up Bar Part 2: Back to the Bar

Freestyle Calisthenics Workout

I was so sore after the 5B’s Pull-up Jam this past Saturday that I actually decided to take a few days off from training. Though it’s common for me to train every day, we all need to rest once in a while. My body was telling me to take it easy, so I listened!

After taking the time to fully recharge, I went to the one and only Tompkins Square Park this morning for a freestyle calisthenics workout. I worked on all different kinds of push-ups, including handstand push-ups as well as front levers, muscle-ups and dips.

Watch the video below for more:

Front Lever Training

The front lever is one of the most difficult (and coolest looking) calisthenics exercises of all time. Performed either as a static hold or for reps from a hanging position, the front lever involves pulling your whole body up til it’s parallel to the floor, almost like you are laying down…on air!

In the continuum of bodyweight strength training, a static front lever hold ranks amongst the most difficult feats. I’d put it somewhere between the human flag and a full planche.

First Things First
Achieving a front lever requires serious back strength as well as total body control. Before you consider front lever training, you should be able to perform at least 10 dead hang pull-ups and several full range of motion hanging leg raises. I also recommend you learn to do a back lever and a dragon flag first.

Tuck Front Lever
The easiest variation on the front lever is the tuck front lever. Hang from a pull-up bar and squeeze your legs into your chest while rolling your hips back until your torso is parallel to the ground. Try to stay up and hold this position for as long as you can.

More advanced variations can involve extending one leg while keeping the other tucked or keeping both legs in a half-tuck position. There are many steps in between the tuck front lever and the full position.

Straddle Front Lever
By opening your legs during a front lever, you’re not only changing the balance, you’re also shortening the lever, both of which make this move slightly easier than a full front lever (though still more difficult than the tuck lever). You’ll need better than average hip mobility to pull off a decent straddle front lever, so make sure you’re stretching regularly.

Front Levers for Reps
When building up to a front lever hold, performing front levers for reps can be a very useful tool. Keep your whole body tight as you use your lats to pull your body into the lever position, then lower back down to a dead hang and repeat. The movement pattern is similar to a dumbbell pullover, except you’re moving your entire body instead of just a dumbbell!

When your form breaks down, switch to hanging leg raises. This can make for a very difficult superset.

Front Lever to Muscle-up
The front lever to muscle-up is a great way to work towards improving your front lever hold, as well as a bad-ass move in its own right. It’s easier to do the muscle-up first, then lower yourself into the lever, maintaining total body tension the whole time. Hold the lever position, then pull yourself back over the bar and repeat. Try using a false grip for this maneuver.

Practice, Practice, Practice
Working your way up to a front lever hold can take a very long time. Be patient and gradually build to several seconds on each step before moving onto the next one. If you find yourself getting stagnant in your progress, take a break from front lever training while you continue to work the basics (pull-ups, push-ups, etc.) then come back to it after a few weeks. In the big picture, a little time off can sometimes give you a renewed focus. The front lever is a very difficult move and I am still working on perfecting it myself!

Check out the video below for more:

Turkish Get-ups

If you’re looking for a great full body exercise, you’d be hard-pressed to find one better than the Turkish get-up.

Turkish get-ups involve full-body strength, flexibility and coordination in a way that few other movements offer. They’re especially good for your shoulders and core, and they can have functional carryover for handstands and handstand push-ups.

If you’re new to this exercise, start with no weight or use a very light weight until you get a feel for the movement pattern. Some people will get it quicker than others, so be patient if you struggle at first. Remember, it’s always beneficial to have one-on-one instruction from an experienced personal trainer when learning a difficult new exercise.

Get Up
Originally developed as a military technique for self defense, the Turkish get-up has become a viable tool for athletes and strongmen of all kinds. The lift involves moving from a position where you are flat on your back into a full standing position, the whole time keeping a weight extended above you in one hand.

Get On Up
Though there are a few different variations on specific techniques, the classic Turkish get-up starts with the lifter bending the leg on the same side where the weight is being held. That foot is used for leverage to roll the torso up onto the opposite hip and elbow. From here, roll onto your palm, bridge your hips, and drag the far leg under your body. Complete the move by standing up just like you were coming up out of a lunge.

Make sure you keep the arm holding the weight straight during the entire lift. Think about actively pressing through that shoulder the whole time. Keep your eyes on the weight, maintaining a tight grip with your arm vertical.

Get Down!
Once you get to a standing position, you’ll need to return to the ground to complete the lift. Take it slow and controlled. Sometimes getting down can be harder than getting up!

Trainer Tips
Don’t worry about going for high reps on these, a few at a time is plenty. You might be surprised how quickly you’ll fatigue, even with a light weight. As always, form first!

Once you are comfortable with this exercise, it can be used to assess your strength. If you can do even half your bodyweight on a Turkish getup, you are extremely strong! (When going heavy, use your free arm to get the weight into position before starting the lift.)

Watch the video below for more:

Thanks to Nimble Fitness for letting me shoot this video in their facility.

Muscle-up Variations

No one move works the entire upper body as thoroughly as the muscle-up. In fact, muscle-ups are on their way to replacing pull-ups as my number one favorite exercise.

If you’re unfamiliar with them, check out my guide to getting your first muscle-up as well as my original post on muscle-ups.

Muscle(up) Confusion
Varying your training forces the body to continually adapt, so I’m always working on acquiring new skills and expanding my arsenal. The better that I get at doing muscle-ups, the more I try to challenge myself with different modifications. I’ve blogged about advanced muscle-ups before, but I’ve been working on some new techniques since then.

Slow Muscle-ups and the False Grip
The transition between the pulling and pushing phases of the muscle-up is the hardest part for beginners. Some people find that using a false grip (cocking your wrist over the bar) can be helpful, as it eliminates the need to roll your hand over the bar during the transition.

A false grip is especially important when attempting to perform slow, controlled muscle-ups. In such instances, if can be helpful to use an exaggerated false grip with your closed fists completely on top of the bar.

Wide Grip/Narrow Grip
Just like pull-ups, the muscle-up can be done with a wide grip or a narrow grip. Both add their own unique challenges to the exercise, though the close grip can be especially tough. Work on gradually bringing your hands closer together over time, eventually working up to the point where they are touching.

X-Muscleup
As the name implies, this muscle-up involves crossing your arms like an X, with each hand over the opposite side’s shoulder. When you do an X-muscleup, the arm that is on the bottom has to do most of the work, so start by learning with your dominant side underneath. It took me lots of practice to get the hang of these and I still need to work on cleaning up my form. Even if you are very good at muscle-ups, expect to get a humbling the first time you try this one.

Clapping Muscle-up
Any time you generate enough explosive force to get airborne, you are doing plyometrics. If you do enough muscle-ups, eventually you can try to push beyond the normal range of motion and propel yourself completely off the bar. Once you’re in the air, you may choose to toss in a clap or other freestyle movement of your choosing. When practicing plyo muscle-ups, use your hips to “cast off” the bar for more height.

Switchblade Muscle-up
The switch grip or “switchblade” muscle-up is one of the more difficult plyometric variations. To perform the switchblade, start out hanging below the bar in an underhand (chin-up) grip. From here, pull yourself up explosively, reversing your grip during the transition phase. You’ll have to generate tons of explosive force to get high enough over the bar to catch yourself and push through the dip phase to complete the exercise.

Watch the video below for more:

Avoiding Injuries in Strength Training

Anyone who’s worked out consistently for long enough has no doubt had to deal with an injury at some point. Setbacks can be frustrating, but if you train hard, eventually some type of injury may be inevitable.

In spite of over two decades of strength training, however, I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid anything serious. The worst I’ve had to deal with was a strained rotator cuff, some mild tendinitis and a few cuts, scrapes and bruises (mostly from freerunning and parkour). If you train smart, you should be able to avoid any serious injuries as well.

Listen to Your Body

One of the most common questions I get asked is, “Is it okay to work out every day?” There is no universal answer that applies to everyone, as individual conditioning varies greatly from person to person. As a general rule, however, let your body rest if you feel sore, achy or tired. If you want to work out and you’re still sore from a previous session, you might take a day to focus on flexibility or work around your sore muscles using a split routine. Another option is to simply do a low-intensity active recovery workout.

You might not always like what it has to say, but listening to your body is the best way to avoid injury. When you have aches and pains, you need to back off. Pay attention to how your body responds to different training programs and act accordingly.

Balancing Act
It is important to make sure that your strength training routine doesn’t favor any one movement pattern too heavily. The phrase antagonistic balance refers to maintaining a healthy symmetry between opposing muscle groups. If your routine is all push-ups and no pull-ups, you’ll likely wind up with shoulder problems and poor posture. Likewise, neglecting your glutes, hamstrings and lower back can also lead to joint pain and postural issues. This is why deadlifts and/or back bridges should be a mainstay of any fitness regimen.

Gradual Progress
People who get injured in training usually do so because they attempted something far outside of their capabilities. While ambition is a great asset, you’ve got to be objective about what your body is realistically capable of handling. I’m all for pushing the boundaries of human performance, but you have to do so gradually!

Check out my master list of exercises to get an idea of how to progress intelligently in the world of bodyweight strength training. You’ll typically want to get to about 10 reps of a given exercise before moving on to harder progressions. For static holds (like planks and L-sits), aim for a 30 second hold or longer.

Live and Learn
Injuries may sometimes be unavoidable, but I believe we are all ultimately responsible for our own fate. Be smart, stay humble and pick yourself up when you fall. If you do get injured, perhaps you can learn from the experience and avoid repeating your mistakes. Remember, an expert is just a beginner who didn’t quit.